A small group gathered in Clondalkin, outside the Round Tower GAA pitches on Monastery Road, on Thursday evening.

Darragh Adelaide clasped a couple of placards with “Clondalkin for All” printed in yellow at the top and “Refugees Welcome” in black at the bottom. More were in a stack propped against a wall.

A few picked up some posters. Sarah Clancy and her partner Anne Mulhall, who’d travelled from Dublin 8, had brought their own homemade banners with welcoming messages for refugees and asylum seekers.

The group trekked down the road in the wind’s cold towards the Woodford Hill roundabout. Nearby, a group of anti-immigrant activists had gathered outside the SIAC offices, currently home to some asylum seekers.

As soon as they arrived, a woman wearing a pink coat put her hands around her mouth and shouted towards them: “The people of Clondalkin turning their backs to the people of Clondalkin.”

Adelaide and others brandished their banners and began chanting slogans in defence of immigrants.

For about two hours, the anti-immigrant camp circled the roundabout, interrupting the other group’s chants with the slogans “Unwelcome unvetted” or “House the Irish”.

At one point, a man tried to pull Sadhbh Mac Lochlainn’s – one of the counter-protestor’s – hat from her head. Others tried to square up and shout at Gino Kenny, the People Before Profit TD, who had turned out that evening.

Gardaí kept shunting away one man hiding half of his face, but he kept charging back towards the counter-vigil.

Mac Lochlainn led the chants back, hollering “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” or “When migrant rights are under attack, stand up, fight back”.

Thursday’s protest was the first time that people had turned out under the Clondalkin for All banner to stand against anti-immigrant protests in the neighbourhood.

Across the city, other groups have begun to do the same – in East Wall, Tallaght, Clondalkin, Drimnagh, Ballyfermot, Cherry Orchard and Ballymun – and as they organise, they face a thorny question of how best to counter hate and manipulation, while keeping open the space for meaningful conversation.

No Place to Chat

Tallaght for All began shaping up as a group on 25 November, says Lynn Ruane, independent senator, who is part of the group.

At the time, it was in response to protests outside an emergency accommodation centre in East Wall, and an early one.

Yet trying to get by day-to-day and gear up to organise preventative and educational actions is a struggle, she says. “It’s hard to respond when this isn’t your full-time job.”

Advertisements for Thursday’s anti-immigration rallies outside accommodation centres for asylum seekers in different parts of Dublin had circled Telegram channels and spread on Twitter and Facebook the day before.

It had been short notice, making it hard to organise and publicise counter-vigils, said Adelaide later, who had picked up posters for the Clondalkin protest from a People Before Profit office in the city on Wednesday.

Clancy and Mulhall said they had struggled to find information about counter-protests when they decided to attend one in their local area or elsewhere in the city.

“And it could be because they just don’t want to go and confront, you know, it could be maybe that they think they have a better approach,” she said, driving past Heuston Station on the way to the protest.

Indeed, Robert Murphy, a community activist in Ballymun who is involved in Ballymun For All, said he didn’t believe counter-protests are useful.

“People are upset, and some people are angry,” said Murphy, “and I think a counter-protest, it could’ve fueled more anger and hatred, you know”.

Ruane, the independent senator, says she has concerns about counter-protests outside emergency accommodation centres in their current form.

Language barriers might mean that not everyone in those centres understands the supportive slogans, making the chaos outside their place of residence look bigger and scarier, Ruane says.

There is a place for counter-protests, she says. “But I think we need to make sure we have clear communication with people living in direct provision centres that a counter-protest is happening.”

Clancy, who recently moved to Dublin with Mulhall, says that when they lived in Co. Clare, counter-protests had proved helpful in preventing future hateful vigils.

Every time anti-immigration actors tried to mobilise, she says, locals pushed back.

“Now like, the area is small, so there weren’t that many of them and the issues weren’t exacerbated,” she says. “But, touch wood, we do seem to have just by rallying around positive voices be able to drown them out.”

An anti-immigrant activist films the counter protest in Clondalkin. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

On Friday night, Conor Reddy was out with 10 other People Before Profit volunteers, leafleting around Ballymun. He said he thinks counter-protests can be helpful, especially for showing solidarity to asylum seekers inside the centres targeted by anti-immigration crowds.

They do have their limits, though, Reddy said. You can’t change someone’s mind and hold meaningful conversations when emotions run high, as they do at protests.

“There has to be space for that,” said Reddy, as he walked up Shangan Drive wrapping up an evening of leafleting.

Focusing Offline?

Efforts to make that space to hold those meaningful conversations are going on behind the scenes, says Murphy, the community activist in Ballymun.

Even if there’s not that much information online about the work that community groups like Ballymun for All are doing, activists and volunteers from political parties, NGOs and community groups are pressing on with good on-the-ground work.

“The long hours, the hard work, attending board meetings, volunteering, the real work and life is behind the scenes, and I plead with people not to let social media rule the world,” Murphy said.

Eschewing coordinated online activity for offline organising seems to contrast with the activities of those opposing immigrants.

On top of the offline protests, there has been widespread misinformation across social media platforms, with repetitive messaging that has then seeped into chants on the streets and become media talking points.

Ruane, the independent senator, says not everyone is comfortable with online activism due to the potential harassment or hijacking it often draws in.

“Because everybody is jumping on to the conversation, so they feel like their voice is lost in that forum,” she says.

Like Murphy, Ruane says fruitful conversations are definitely happening offline.

“They are happening at kitchen tables; they are happening when you go to a coffee shop, among groups of friends,” she says.

Busting Myths

On Wednesday evening, Adelaide, the Clondalkin local, sat at a Starbucks on North Earl Street, pulling up a leaflet from his bag that he’d printed the same night. He had borrowed its material from the Tallaght for All group, he said.

But added some points in bold just for Clondalkin, said Adelaide, like how people needed to unite in particular to fight together for proper access to healthcare and school places. Locals grapple with those difficulties and organised anti-immigration groups use them to spread asylum misinformation.

“They try to talk about these things to get people riled up and saying that they’re moving these refugees here so people can’t access GPs,” said Adelaide.

Adelaide mentions the unvetted narrative popularised by organised anti-immigration circles and how the leaflet addresses that.

It points out that once an asylum-seeker becomes eligible to work, they would be garda-vetted if going for a job that requires the vetting procedure, like anyone else in the country.

It also mentions the Eurodac system, or the European database for storing asylum seekers’ fingerprints, saying that’s a form of vetting on top of a rigorous asylum procedure.

Eurodac is primarily used to check if someone has already applied for asylum in another EU country and, if so, to try to send them back to that country under Dublin III rules, but European police forces can potentially use the data for criminal investigations.

With groups on the back foot, one of the conundrums that they face is how to counter anti-immigrant frames that have already taken hold, often through social media messaging.

Explaining the vetting and identity-check processes that asylum seekers might face for example risks reinforcing a frame that asylum seekers are to be feared.

The Far-Right Observatory, an organisation focused on monitoring, analysing and taking action against the spread of hateful ideologies,has shared guidelines on the best methods to communicate facts about those seeking asylum that local groups can use.

Its advice includes avoiding mythbusting, as that draws everyone into anti-immigrant framings.

Better messaging, they say, is to emphasise solidarity, how much we all share values, yet some are trying to divide us with fear. (That’s a message that the Clondalkin for All leaflet also stresses.)

Darragh Adelaide at the counterprotest in Clondalkin. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

Ruane, the independent senator, says myth-busting needs to avoid referencing hateful stereotypes. But “I do think there needs to be myth-busting if it’s done in a particular way”.

Sat at the Leinster House’s coffeeshop, she pulls up Tallaght for All’s Instagram page on her phone, pointing to how it explains various concepts without getting into what the misinformation narrative about them is.

“Like, you know, what is international protection? What is the global context? What is emergency accommodation?” said Ruane.

She said the Tallaght group has been in communication with the Far-Right Observatory, and they will get better at strategising over time.

Ruane says all the newly formed groups need to start liaising about constant efforts too, not just those responding to protests.

But more importantly, asylum seekers and people from other migrant backgrounds should be vital organisers and advisors within those movements, Ruane said.

“Because it’s, again, us talking about a community without them being in the room,” she said.

And the scope of such activism should go beyond raising awareness about direct provision centres, Ruane said.

“We should look at how racism is affecting people in their everyday lives. How is it affecting them socially, emotionally, psychologically?” she said.

Talking and Listening

On Friday night, Reddy, the People Before Profit volunteer, stood outside the Axis centre in Ballymun, addressing a group of 10 other volunteers who had turned up to distribute leaflets busting myths about asylum seekers.

Ballymun for All, a coalition of political reps and community activists, which Reddy is a part of, was going to have a stall outside SuperValu the day after, he said later.

Reddy told the volunteers not to engage with anyone who showed undue hostility and seemed loath to have a calm conversation.“What we’re doing tonight is important; I don’t think it’s completely without risk,” he said.

He then split the group into two. They began leafleting from Shangan Road, where Reddy pointed to a big derelict building and said vacancies like this were contributing to the housing crisis that is now being blamed by some on people seeking asylum.

Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures show that 166,752 homes laid empty across the country on Census night in April 2022.

Towards the end of the evening, as the two groups met again on Shangan Drive, one man, wearing a hoodie and tracksuit bottoms, who’d picked up a leaflet, began to shout at them.

“Fuck off, the lot of you. No fucking refugee is getting a house when the Irish can’t get a bedsit,” hollered the man.

He then approached them, and Reddy and Andrew Keegan, another People Before Profit rep, began to talk to him.

He was homeless, sleeping in a “two-man tent”, and his girlfriend had lost their baby recently, he said.

Keegan and Reddy said that he should be angry but that his anger was misdirected towards people seeking asylum.

At one point, when Reddy told him how many properties were lying vacant around the country, he looked shocked and asked for the number again – which Reddy told him.

“So, you could house the homeless population several times over,” Reddy said.

Reddy said the housing crisis had sprung from successive government failures. Not people housed in office blocks and hostels.

“They are just normal human beings,” Reddy said.

“When was the last time there was a housing protest in Ballymun? Big numbers like focused on housing, we need to focus that anger towards the right place,” he said.

By the end of the conversation, the man said he was convinced. He shook Reddy and Keegan’s hands.

“Give us one of these, sure, I’ll have a look,” he said, pointing to a leaflet.

Reddy could never recreate that moment while standing on the other side at a counter-protest, he said later.

“You just can’t have the same conversation. There are all sorts of complexities to people’s situations,” he said.

But as long as the government fails to address the housing crisis, the anger will bubble over, said Keegan, leaving people vulnerable to exploitation by organised anti-immigration groups.

“Sure, he shook our hands there, but he’s still going back to a two-man tent,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you be angry?”

CORRECTION: The caption of the photo at the top of this article was corrected on 18 January 2023 at 12:28pm to reflect that the person with Conor Reddy is actually Ollie Power, not Andrew Keegan.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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